In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle visits a futuristic London that is decidedly medieval
Richard Jefferies, who appears to have been the first person to use the phrase ‘wild life’ to describe the natural world in 1879, is one of England’s greatest ever nature writers. But what is less well-known is that he was also a novelist. If his novels are recalled, it tends to be his book Bevis, a tale featuring a group of young boys who play games and build things and otherwise amuse themselves among the natural world, which is mentioned.
Far less celebrated is his work of dystopian fiction, After London, which was published in 1885. The original title of Bevis was going to be After London, suggesting that the two novels have an affinity; but After London offers something starkly different. Ten years before H. G. Wells published his far more famous book The Time Machine, Jefferies was predicting a time in which London had reverted to pre-industrial greenery, much as the London of 802,701 in Wells’s novella has become a vast garden.
After London is set after some great cataclysmic event (an unspecified environmental disaster, such as a flood) that has destroyed the industrial Victorian London that Richard Jefferies knew. As with The Time Machine, the landscape (especially for a nature-lover like Jefferies) appears utopian while the people mark this future world out as a dystopia: although the chimneys and factories of the modern city have vanished to be replaced by idyllic woodland and pasture, the people of this future world have reverted to barbarism.
The protagonist of After London is a man named Felix Aquila, who explores this neo-medieval world, living for a time with a group of shepherds and searching England for his beloved. Jefferies subtitled After London ‘Wild England’, and it is wild in both senses: the land has become a vast jungle and swamp, and the people have become uncivilised.
Although the novel is not exactly a page-turner in terms of its slow-moving and meandering plot, it is interesting in the context of Jefferies’ eye for nature and the late Victorian interest in dystopias and post-apocalyptic fiction (compare Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Land of Darkness’ for a very different early dystopian response to industrial England). Richard Jefferies started work on After London earlier than 1885, possibly in response to Erewhon and The Coming Race, two utopias (although they are both also ironic utopias, if not full-on negative ones) published in the early 1870s.
And there is little doubt that Jefferies was not alone in feeling that modern civilisation was doomed. But for many, including Jefferies himself, it was about time too. This sentiment was shared by William Morris, who would later offer his hopeful socialist vision of the future London of 2035 in his 1890 novel News from Nowhere. In 1885, shortly after reading After London, Morris wrote to the wife of the artist Edward Burne-Jones:
I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilization’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before very long: what a joy it is to think of! And how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies.
After London, then, is a curious mixture of post-apocalyptic dystopia and escapist medieval romance, as though caught between the nascent worlds of H. G. Wells and the romantic fantasies of William Morris. But Jefferies welcomed the coming apocalypse. This is because, like Morris and like the poems of Tennyson popular during much of the nineteenth century, from ‘The Lady of Shalott’ to the last of the Idylls of the King (which appeared in 1885, the same year as Jefferies published his novel), After London returns to the land of enchantment and chivalry that was so beloved of Victorians, but takes a different and unusual route in order to get there.
For, rather than return to an imaginary past, Jefferies imagines a possible future, one whose pseudo-medieval charms are bittersweet because they are shot through with the dystopian cataclysm which has made such charms possible in the first place. The king of Aisi is called Isembard, a name from Germanic mythology but one which, in 1885, comes with overtones of nineteenth-century industrialisation (the ‘kingdom’ of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is here a very literal one). However, given that ‘Isambard’ (Jefferies altered the second vowel) means ‘glittering iron’, the name hovers between connotations of medieval smithies and nineteenth-century ironworks, much like the repeated mentions of ‘iron’ in the novel at large.
‘Dystopian’ and post-apocalyptic novels tend to be much stronger on world-building than plot, and such is the case with After London. Still, it’s a beautiful paean to Jefferies’ dream of a pastoral London, one in which the smog has cleared and the hypocritical aspects of so-called civilisation have been swept away from the world.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.